I admit it. I was kind of rough on Josh Lucas following "Glory Road," Disney's surprisingly successful basketball flick that captured the magic of just about every coaching caricature known to man.
"Glory Road" dealt mildly realistically with the realities of racism in basketball during Texas Western's trip to the NCAA Championship, despite the fact that several of the film's key scenes were of events that never actually happened.
I could never figure out the logic in using untrue events to make a powerful point about racism. Josh Lucas was adequate, in my opinion, but lacked the fire, spirit and authenticity of coaches from great sports films such as the great "Hoosiers." Still, the film caught on with the moviegoing public as even in its mediocrity it was the best sports-related feature flick to hit the market in recent months.
I THOUGHT Lucas lacked authenticity, that is until a recent screening of "We Are Marshall," a woefully inadequate, surprisingly insensitive film about the events that followed the 1970 plane crash that killed the vast majority of Marshall University's football team.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of these morose, sullen individuals who believes in taking the gloves off with sensitive material. I'm not above fun, laughter and the often off-kilter aspects of everyday life...even after a great tragedy.
Yet, there's something about "We Are Marshall" that just feels constantly uncomfortable. As coach Jack Lengyel, Matthew McConaughey sounds like a cockier, more self-assured coach and, dare I say this in a film based upon a tragedy, smarmy in the way he swoops in, offers to coach the team and projects the sort of bravado that would have been quite at home in "Remember the Titans."
It's not at home in "We Are Marshall." In fact, at times, it feels downright mean-spirited.
The problem, I fear, is not McConaughey at all. The problem is McG, the director whose primary approach emphasizes style over substance, image over emotion. Oddly enough it's not just the emotional aspects of the film that McG mismanages, but the film's various football-related, action sequences. He applies his music video approach to the sequences, an approach that leads to multiple quick edits that only support the idea that "We Are Marshall" has been turned into a run-of-the-mill football film instead of the human drama it cried out to be. McConaughey shows, on at least 2-3 occasions, glimpses of a very real poignancy that should have been allowed the opportunity to shine through his character. It felt as if McConaughey sensed something deeper that, perhaps, was stifled under McG's direction.
The rest of the film's cast also falls victim to McG's abrupt, out of focus direction and, again, in a film based upon a truly dark moment in collegiate sports we end up with cardboard characters that barely skim the surface of the inevitable emotions from such an event.
We have the college president (David Strathairn), the parent who wants to shut down the football program (Ian McShane), the cheerleader whose fiancée died in the crash (Kate Mara), an assistant coach who'd been on a recruiting trip (Matthew Fox) and, of course, the players (including Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty). What we don't have is a sense of who these people really are and how they were impacted by the events that surrounded them...in the place of this authenticity we are offered uncomfortable (notice how often I'm using that word here?) dialogue, fake sentimentality and paper thin characters.
The film's production values are average at best, and the cinematography and editing fall incredibly short of even this year's much better and considerably lower budgeted "Facing the Giants."
While more historically accurate than the largely trumped up "Glory Road," "We Are Marshall" takes the truth it presents and practically disregards it in favor of a predictable, slick and artificially sentimental film that favors emotional moments over emotional resonance.
"We Are Marshall," the emotionally driven and cathartic community chant portrayed in the film's trailer and vividly recreated in the film is, in fact, an actual occurrence that speaks to the significance of Marshall University to the small West Virginia town in which it resides. The image of this chant continues to play in my mind even as I write this review.
Despite serving as the title for the film, the real tragedy is that this chant serves as more of an event in the film rather than its foundation. By the end of the film, audiences members were heard leaving the theatre with their own, often off-color versions of what should have been one of the defining moments of "We Are Marshall."
To say that "We Are Marshall" is a tragedy unto itself would be massively minimizing the horrific tragedy on which it is based...suffice it to say that "We Are Marshall" is, even by Hollywood's questionable standards, one of 2006's greatest cinematic tragedies.